Michael Smith

Banquet speech

Michael Smith’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1993

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of Dr. Kary Mullis and myself, I would like to express our deep gratitude to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and to the Nobel Foundation for the honour that has been bestowed on us today.

Dr. Georges Charpak, in his speech of 1992 in acknowledgment of his prize in Physics, conjured up, with elegant Gallic flair, an image involving the number 137, the ancient Nordic gods Odin and Freja, and his work on subatomic particles. Not being French, such imagery is not within my compass. However, others, most specifically Michael Crichton and Stephen Spielberg in the novel and subsequent film Jurassic Park, have conjured with dramatic impact, an image of the use of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to recreate the dinosaurs.

One could imagine a less dramatic reincarnation that is more relevant to this uniquely special occasion. Suppose that one could use PCR to resuscitate Alfred Nobel and that one could use site-directed mutagenesis to cure the heart disease to which he and his brother fell victims. What would he, a vigorous 160 year old, have to say as he contemplated the approaching 100th anniversary of the commencement of the awarding of Nobel Prizes. I hope that he would have enormous satisfaction in the honour and prestige that his bequest has brought to his memory, to the Nobel Foundation, to the two Swedish Academies, to the Karolinska Institute, to the Norwegian Nobel Committee and to the Swedish and Norwegian people. I hope that he would be both surprised and pleased to see that this year molecular biologists have won the Prizes in Chemistry and in Physiology or Medicine, which speaks to the adaptability of the Prize selection process in the face of the unpredictable dynamics of scientific discovery. And he would be pleased, I’m sure, by the action of the Bank of Sweden in instituting a new prize in 1968, the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

I believe that Alfred Nobel, in contemplating this munificent act of the Bank and in contemplating what might happen in the next 100 years, would be concerned about the problems of that next century. And, of course, there is one problem that would attract his attention beyond all others. That is the impact of the uncontrolled growth and demands of the human population on the finite capacity of planet Earth. We, Homo sapiens, destroyed the majority of the large mammalian species in North America and Australasia just over 10,000 years ago. We, Homo sapiens, now are destroying the other species that presently exist on this planet at a rate of about 15,000 to 20,000 per year. Given that the current estimate of the total number of species on the planet is about 2 million, this rate, by the end of the next century, will be equivalent in biological effect to the catastrophic event(s) of 65 million years ago that eliminated not only the dinosaurs but also the ammonoid cephalopods, many echinoids, and many genera of foraminifera and of calcareous phytoplankton, the kind of mass extinction that previously in the earth’s history has required 5 million years for recovery, such recovery resulting in a completely different biota from that preceeding it.

I believe that Alfred Nobel, being aware of the unique and enormous impacts of his prizes on world thought and opinion, would wish to see a new prize or new prizes instituted to commemorate the 100th anniversary, perhaps related to studies on the control of human population, perhaps on biodiversity, perhaps on the environment, perhaps on sustainability.

I, thus, want to express my deep-felt gratitude for the award of the prize in Chemistry in the form of a wish on behalf of Alfred Nobel. This wish is intended only as the greatest of compliments to those who value and support the Nobel Prizes, because of the enormous power for good that the Prizes represent. I hope that the 100th anniversary can be celebrated by the endowment of a new prize that addresses these problems of the next century as I think Alfred Nobel would see them, if only we could have worked magic with the polymerase chain reaction and with site-directed mutagenesis.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1993, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1994

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1993

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